There's no hiding the fact that the 2015 season for Wake Forest football ended on a note that was slightly discouraging. After starting the year 3-3, the Deacs fell in six straight games to ACC foes and Notre Dame to wind up with a 3-9 record for the second consecutive season. On the cover one might see the stagnant record and think that not much progress has been made since Dave Clawson took over, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite ending the season on a tough losing streak, the Deacs thoroughly outplayed multiple opponents that were far more experienced and featured highly regarded recruits throughout the entire season. With the team returning 17 of 22 starters and a number of them being freshmen or sophomores, Wake will be in great shape to make some strides in the Win-column in 2016.
While I was pondering about year 3 of the Clawson era at WF it got me thinking: How have other Dave Clawson teams done in the past in the transition from years 1, 2, and 3? The numbers aren’t totally consistent across the board, but they are rather encouraging overall.
Here’s a table of some important statistical categories for Dave Clawson’s seasons in Years 1, 2, and 3 at his three previous Head Coaching positions (Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green) and Wake Forest.
The clearest turnaround job was clearly his first at Fordham, at which he transformed a miserable 0-11 Rams team into a 7-4 program that finished 3rd in the Patriot League in 2001. The positive trend in PPG and OPPG are rather noticeable, as the Rams increased their points scored by 92% from 1999 to 2001 and decreased their points allowed by nearly half in the same time frame.
Total offense stayed relatively constant from years 1-2, but in year 3 took a massive leap to nearly 400 yards a game. This was likely attributed to the fact that Clawson’s Fordham line was far more capable than it was in his first season in 1999 (The '99 team only reached the red zone 5 times. Seriously.). The team allowed 26 less sacks in 2001 than in his debut season, and the rushing game that was worst in the Patriot League in Year 1 was now averaging nearly 150 yards per game two years later.
With the run game improving and the team getting more yards on the ground on 1st down, the overall distance for 3rd to-go was likely shorter, and this coincided with a 3rd down percentage that reached 40% in 2001. It’s clear that Coach Clawson had a massive effect on the Fordham program that was in the cellar of the FCS when he first arrived. The impact he had on Richmond was slightly less clear, but evident nonetheless.
In 2004, Dave Clawson inherited a Richmond program that had nine total wins in the previous three seasons. Getting consistently out-recruited by in-state rivals JMU and William and Mary, Clawson wasn’t really given much to work with from his predecessor Jim Reid heading into Year 1. The team once again struggled to score in 2004, though Total Defense numbers were much improved from just the year before under Reid’s command (424.0/g to 358.2/g).
The 2005 season featured a massive jump and the Spiders went from being one of the worst teams in the A10 to a top 10 FCS program and into the Quarterfinals of the 1-AA playoffs. Once again the improvement seems to be far more correlated with an improved O-Line than anything else, as UR’s rushing attack skyrocketed in 2005 to nearly 200 yards a game while overall Sacks Allowed was cut in half from 3.2/g to 1.6/g.
One of the main reasons for Richmond’s improved rushing attack was Clawson’s ability to bring in RB Tim Hightower in his first recruiting class in 2004. Hightower had significant FBS interest heading into his senior year, but ultimately decided to commit to the new coaching staff of Dave Clawson at UR and went on to become the Spiders’ all-time leading rusher. Hightower averaged 5.5 YPC his sophomore year in 2005 and a dynamic offense with dual-threat QB Stacy Tutt and Hightower was one of the more exciting attacks to watch in the A10 that year (21 rushing total touchdowns total).
Year 3 saw some regression in the win column and total offense, but the Spiders’ defense let up less than 270 yards a game on average throughout the 2006 season. Richmond’s pass defense was #1 in the A10 leading the league in INT’s and passing yards allowed per game, while its rush defense allowed only 3.2 yards per carry. The offensive line continued to protect the quarterback only allowing 13 sacks the entire season and the Spiders converted on 45.3% of all 3rd downs. To put that in perspective, 45.3% is typically a 3rd down conversion figure that is in the top 20% of all FBS programs at the end of the year.
A few years later Clawson moved on to the program he coached prior to accepting the Wake Forest head job: Bowling Green State University. In his debut season for the Falcons he was fortunate enough to have BGSU All-Time passing leader QB Tyler Sheehan and star WR Freddie Barnes at his disposal, the latter of which set the single season NCAA record for receptions (155) and the MAC single season receiving yards record (1770) in 2009. Sheehan in 2009 basically had to throw the ball in Barnes’ vicinity and feel comfortable that it was going to be completed, which explains why offensive productivity fell dramatically once they both graduated the following spring. BGSU dropped from 4th in the MAC in Total Offense to 12th, with a measly 62.8 yards per game on the ground, which was dead last in all of FBS by more than 15 yards.
Clawson’s plan to develop a more balanced offense in Year 3 was put into effect in his second full recruiting class, finding diamond in the rough Anthon Samuel in the Class of 2011. Samuel came in and immediately had an impact, rushing for 874 yards in just 9 games in his freshman season and averaging 5.9 YPC. Samuel went on to rush for 998 yards and 11 TD’s in his sophomore season before transferring to FIU following Clawson’s departure.
Also in the 2011 class that signaled the turnaround for the program: QB Matt Johnson (Led the nation in 2015 Passing Yards with 4700), Chris Gallon (720 yards, 6TD’s as a freshman in Year 3), and Travis Greene (3772 yards and 37 TD’s in BGSU career). Not a single one of them was a 3* and all had a significant impact on the program once they arrived. Dave Clawson seems to be doing the exact same thing at Wake Forest, with under the radar skill-position guys such as Tyler Bell, Cortez Lewis, Tabari Hines, and Chuck Wade all outperforming their rankings early in their careers.
Finally, we have a look at Clawson’s most recent season at Wake Forest. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the Deacs were a much-improved side in 2015 compared to 2014, with total offense being the clearest improvement of all. Wake significantly struggled to move the ball in 2014 mainly due to the fact its offensive line was nowhere near the level it needed to be to compete as a P5 program. With a rushing attack that was one of the more pitiful in college football history, Wake’s offense was all too predictable with little offensive weapons and an O-Line that couldn’t handle a blitz of any kind.
The Line was still less than stellar in 2015, but with freshman RB’s Tyler Bell and Matt Colburn getting touches the Deacs did seem a little more competent in picking up yardage on early downs and reducing the number of 3rd and longs. This led to the 3rd down percentage increasing from 27% to 34% and the team jumping 17 spots in the FBS rankings in this category. The real downfall of 2015 was turnovers, with Wake Forest only having 11 takeaways and turning it over 24 total times. This was the difference between W’s and L’s in games like Louisville, FSU, and Syracuse, where the Deacs outplayed their opponents but simply ended up on the wrong side of the turnover battle.
Wake coach Dave Clawson: "We have more yards than our opponents and that shouldn't translate to a 3-7 record. "— Deacons Illustrated (@WakeRivals) November 17, 2015
It should be interesting to see how the numbers in Year 3 of the Clawson era at Wake Forest compare to those at his prior head coaching jobs. The most obvious trend of his previous tenures was the fact that Sacks Allowed decreased in all but 1 year of the sampled data and 3rd down percentage often increased as time went on. This is mainly due to the fact that Clawson takes pride in building an Offensive-Line that can allow him to be more balanced on offense and establish a run game to open up an aerial attack.
At Fordham, Year 1 passing yards made up 74% of the offense. By Year 3, that number was 63%.
At Richmond, passing yards in Year 1 made up 60% of total offense. By Year 3, that number was 54%.
At Bowling Green, passing yards made up 79% of total offense. By Year 3 that number was 68%.
And at Wake in Year 1, passing offense made up 82% of total offense. Last year that number had already dropped to 68%.
It’s clear that Clawson’s offenses become much more balanced as his time in the program rolls on, and that trend will likely continue next year with a couple of talented RB’s coming in, including redshirt freshman Rocky Reid. Four members of the starting line will be back which should give Quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton some much-needed extra time in the pocket and allow deep routes and big plays to develop. While the defense will sorely miss LB’s Brandon Chubb and Hunter Williams, the Deacs will return nearly their entire D-Line and all but Zach Dancel in the secondary, along with adding some talented recruits to the depth chart as well.
This group of Demon Deacons has laid the groundwork for Wake Forest Football. Exciting times to come! pic.twitter.com/pLGmfHQ4Px— Wake Forest Football (@WakeFB) November 30, 2015
Given the favorable non-conference schedule in 2016 and the pieces returning, I would expect a jump in wins similar to Clawson’s 3rd season at Fordham next year. Delaware, Indiana, Army, and Tulane are all very winnable games as are Syracuse (Home), BC (Home), UL (Away), Duke (Away), and NC State (Away). Find six wins out of those nine matchups and the Deacs will find themselves back in a bowl for the first time since 2011. Overall, there’s a lot to be excited about in Winston-Salem and the future looks very bright for Dave Clawson’s program, the toughest part is having the patience to wait.
For more stats and daily Wake Forest recruiting news, follow me on twitter @DeacFan3.